Competition in a small town

competition?Oftentimes my guests ask me: how are your relationships with other businesses? When the question is asked by (former) business owners my reply usually sounds familiar and they will nod sympathetically. But the majority of people never owned a business in their life, and to them my answers usually sounds surprising.

The cliche image that most people have of competition in general, and especially of competition in a small town, is that of two cartoon characters who happen to start the same business and then resort to all kind of ludicrous means of sabotage. They expect there to be some kind of animosity between me and my competitors. They have mostly been taught at public schools (by people who never owned a business and enjoy the highest possible job security) that competition is a dog-eat-dog, evil system that hurts people. The reality is very different.

Competition at large is a system of coöperation: very few businesses compete directly. Think of whom a business relies on: consumers and suppliers of products and services; other businesses. Like a growing forest, everybody reaches for the sky, and sometimes people loose, but the end result is magnificent. Compare the beauty of the competing forest with the desolation of a planned golf course. In which one of them the players have a higher chance of success?

So we work together with some of the other hotels/hostels in town. When we are full, we send guests and vice versa. When guests are looking for something cheaper or something more luxurious, we tell them where to go. Because we’re not just renting out beds, we are selling Santa Fe as a tourist destination. Our real competition lies in Costa Rica and the other mountain towns in Panama: Boquete and El Valle.
Tourist demand more business here in Santa Fe, not less. If we run each other down, the guide books would write about Santa Fe: “beautiful town for nature lovers, but nothing to do”, like they did when we came here almost five years ago. Thanks to our efforts and that of our ‘competitors’, Santa Fe is now included in the latest Lonely Planet as a ‘Must see destination’.

But this is only the beginning. Last year I made the effort of launching a website to promote the whole town: I have yet to gather enough material and funds to make a real marketing impact, but the foundation is there.

Hopefully we ‘competing’ businesses can get together soon to bring this project to bear fruit.


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